World / Asia-Pacific

By visiting Yasukuni Shrine, politicians shun another option

By Tom Clifford (China Daily) Updated: 2014-04-22 07:22

Nearby national cemetery is a respectful place to remember nation's war dead

Apologists will say that Yasukuni is a place where the war dead can be remembered.

You can imagine the outrage if German politicians visited or gave offerings to a shrine that denied the Holocaust.

It is not just the fact that not a single body is buried at Yasukuni Shrine, though 2,466,000 souls are enshrined there. By going to that shrine, by giving offerings to the shrine, Japanese politicians are turning their backs on another option.

Just up the road is the Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery, with the remains of 352,297 unknown Japanese soldiers and civilians. It is tranquil, serene, respectful. Its evergreen trees provide ample places of shade. It is close to Yasukuni and is served by the same subway stop, Kudanshita.

Like Yasukuni, it is near the Imperial Palace. The emperor, who shuns Yasukuni, even though his ministers go there, is a frequent visitor.

Chidorigafuchi's significance has not been lost on Washington.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel paid their respects during a visit to Japan in October, the most senior foreign dignitaries to do so since an Argentinean president visited in 1979, the year Yasukuni announced that the souls of convicted war criminals had been enshrined.

When Kerry and Hagel visited, US defense officials went on record saying that the cemetery was Japan's "closest equivalent" to Arlington National Cemetery.

A US official said that Kerry and Hagel were paying tribute at Chidorigafuchi, maintained by the Environment Ministry, in the same way that "Japanese defense ministers regularly lay wreaths at Arlington". Yasukuni is funded by a private organization, the Association of Wartime Bereaved Families.

Yasukuni's role is to minimize, or better still, whitewash, Japanese war crimes and portray the expansionist Japanese empire as the victim. It is a place where history and memory can be altered to fit a present-day agenda.

No mention of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre is made at Yasukuni's modern museum, which has a Zero fighter at the entrance.

Yasukuni does not operate in a vacuum. It is symbolic of a wider aspiration to portray Japan's wartime role in a favorable light and set the scene for a more-aggressive foreign policy. School textbooks attempt to portray Japanese aggression in the 1930s as the "liberation of backward nations". The Japanese education minister is proposing to reject textbooks that do not adopt a "patriotic tone".

There is a reason why Japanese children know so little about their country's past, and there is a reason why the Nanjing Massacre is barely mentioned, let alone acknowledged, in Japan. There is a reason why the emperor will not visit. Yasukuni is an expression of the forces at work that deny Japan's military aggression and want to shape a different, more belligerent, future for the country.

With China emerging, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is using Yasukuni to help forge a greater role for the Japanese military.

If a Japanese politician wanted to remember the horrors of war, the lives lost, then Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery would seem the obvious choice.

Those who deny history are not always condemned to repeat it, but denial is a dangerous place to start on any journey, and it is fully within the bounds of legitimacy to raise questions about the destination.

The author is a senior copy editor of China Daily.

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